Author Topic: Part 38: Grilled Medium-Rare  (Read 9392 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 38: Grilled Medium-Rare
« on: February 24, 2023, 06:33:37 PM »
Char held up under the questioning as stoically as she could, given the circumstances. They wanted to know every single thing that had happened to her since the destruction of the Arbormass. Since before it, actually. Her revelation about Moss had frozen their roots for a second, but they'd thawed out and were digging deep again.

"As I said before," she responded patiently. "The messages I sent to my handler were necessarily brief and cryptic. If they had been intercepted, I would have been arrested and probably executed as a trejun spy. I had no means to tell Torlo about Moss. That's why he never included it in his reports to you!"

Like Moss, she was growing around the truth, but hopefully close enough to it. She'd been relieved when they'd disconnected him, but strangely, felt alone as well. She'd had no idea he felt that way. Or perhaps she hadn't let herself believe it. She'd had a mission to accomplish after all.

"So you took it upon yourself to save him?" Sanoro went on, though his sense was less severe than before. "How, exactly?"

"I discovered as a part of my Combustor experience, a substance that blunts flames. A liquid that I had been using for years to protect my own bark and roots. I coated him in it, or actually instructed one of his own qars to coat him. That way when the trejuns attacked, the flames scorched him, but he survived. I waited for them to report total destruction, and then came back to retrieve him."

"And then you took him to Grove Kulik, to present to your handler?"

"Not directly. I knew that with two of us, the cart would burn fuel more quickly, so I took us to the rock oil deposit outside Kulik first. There I mixed more fuel, and then finished the journey." Her thoughts fluttered at that, remembering the devastation. "Did anyone in Kulik make it out? I know the chances are slim, but I saw you have carts here. If they had some up there as well—”

"I'm sorry, Char," another person named Trem put in, her sense leaking sympathy. "We only started getting carts ourselves a week ago. Kulik is gone, along with anyone living there."

"I understand," she responded slowly. Torlo and the others had been like family to her. Distant cousins and uncles, maybe, but valuable all the same. They'd been her only connection to the sandkin, until she'd actually come here herself. That brought up another topic, though. "How did you get carts anyway? Or those rings surrounding each of you? The designs for those are only a few weeks old!"

"That's not your concern," Sanoro responded immediately. "Until we decide what level of threat you represent, you can't know any more about us than you do now."

For a second, all Char could do was process that. "Since when? I'm a sandkin citizen. Under sandkin law, I'm entitled to know all that the oasis knows. I'm one of you, for Core's sake!"

"Are you?" Sorfa put in. "You grew up in a Union grove. You bonded a Union citizen, in violation of your oath of secrecy! You didn't even have the decency to show shame at that, when we questioned you about it! Can you really say, Char, that you're one of us?"

"Of course I am! I may have been raised up there, but I am and always have been a sandkin! The first thing I did after the Arbormass was destroyed was try to make contact with my handler. When I found him dead, I risked everything on a near-suicidal trip into the Orja to find you! I could have died. I could have lost Moss!"

That last part had been unexpected, even to her, but she told herself it was part of her cover story. Regardless, she had proven herself. "If I'm not a sandkin to you by now, I never will be. And besides, you don't have the authority to restrict information from me, Asher or Elder. Your authority is simply based on the majority. If more than half of you want to, at any time, you can say so, and both of those titles will just vanish like water in the desert!"

Agitation leaked into the conversation from all corners, as sandkin started to speak out. Whether in favor of her argument or against it, she couldn't tell, but they were all cut off quickly. "Enough!" Trem put in, her confidence and surety acting as a bulwark against the budding hostility. "Char is correct. She may be a newcomer to Sharpcrag, but she knows our ways and our laws. We agreed long ago that none of us will have more than any other, and that includes secrets. That is the basis of what it means to be sandkin, and we cannot forget that, ever."

In any grove within the Union or Trejuna, people would have continued to disagree, loudly and angrily, despite Trem's statements. Unlike the sandkin, neither of them had a central ideology defining them. They were just people. Sandkin were people and equality, in every sense. Char and Moss' arrival may have shaken Sharpcrag's calm, but Trem had just reminded them that they were better than their neighbors to the north, or the potential enemies across the sea. They were sandkin, and that meant something.

Sorfa, Sanoro, and a few others leaked hostility, but they begrudgingly accepted the will of the majority. Trem waited until that was clear to everyone, and then continued in Sanoro's place. "Char, when you were just a seedling, we discovered that one of our oases was temperate enough to sustain qar queens and workers. We don't know why exactly, but something in the area around Evershell allows them to survive and breed successfully. Evershell has four queens right now, and about fifty thousand qar workers."

"That's amazing!" Char exclaimed. "I can't believe it. I thought the qar species was going to go extinct, but if these queens survived the trejun attacks, maybe they'll survive."

"Or maybe not," Trem said glumly. "We have no idea if four queens are enough to keep the qars going over the long term. It's possible that the Union kept a few alive as well. Regardless, it was enough to get the avalanche started as it were. They were stockpiling refined metal dug from the hills near Evershell for over two seasons, until you started sending your designs from the Arbormass. After that, they used the newly built carts, and articulator limbs, to spread these devices to nearly every oasis in the Orja! And you started it all. You, Moss, and the fallen heroes of the Arobormass."

So that was why the crowd had been split on her fate. Char had been confused why there wasn't universal anger against her, until this moment. "I just did as I was instructed."

"You did a little more than that," Trem said wryly, indicating the space were Moss had been, and the crowd sent out traces of amusement. "Still, don't underestimate what you've accomplished. For the first time in history, sandkin all over the Orja can actually manipulate their environment, the same way Evershell can. For the first time, sandkin have actually moved from one oasis to another! Your contributions have helped open up a whole new world for us, Char."

Appreciation washed over her from most of the group, overwhelming the continuing hostility from the few of them. Caught up in it for a moment, Char suddenly remembered the whole reason Moss had chosen to come.

She tried to collect her thoughts, as she paused. Moss might not appreciate her speaking to them on behalf of the Union, not without him being present, but she could at least make some inquiries. "It's been almost two weeks since the Arbormass was destroyed. We didn't use the Union interroot to avoid detection, so we don't know what's been happening up there. Have you gotten word from the Union, even after Grove Kulik was destroyed?"

Trem sent out an affirmative. "Kulik wasn't our only source of information—just the one closest to the front lines. Their Chancellor is still restricting public information, but our other operatives have told us the Union is holding the line for now. They don't have carts or articulator limbs, so they can't go on the offensive, but the fighting seems to have come to a stop for the moment. Either the trejuns are running out of combustible materials, or the juns themselves."

Char couldn't help but let out some relief at that. She might not approve of how the Union did things, and especially their Chancellor, but that didn't mean she wanted them all dead. "Moss will want to address the people of Sharpcrag, and hopefully the rest of the sandkin, as soon as possible."

"We figured as much," Sanoro put in. "If you two weren't bonded, I might assume he was using you to get to us. As it is, we still need to decide what to do with you, before we move on to him."

So much for laying the groundwork for a good conversation. Char hoped that when it was his time, Moss could do better.